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Steve Manning, The Rockley Group, Inc.

What's the Best Content Management System? It Depends...

There are a dizzying number of systems on the market that are or can be referred to as Content Management Systems. Determining which content management system is right for you starts with an understanding of the different types of systems and the range of functionality available. Analyzing your needs is critical to selecting the right system.

When I am at conferences or seminars, people like to ask me “what is the best content management system?” I usually squirm and hem and haw and then state, “depends on what you need it to do.” It’s not the answer that people want; they want me to name Product A or Product C and save them lots of time and effort in selecting a content management system on their own. Selecting the right content management (CM) system can be a lengthy and exhausting process, as the content management landscape is a very crowded and confusing one.

Leading the confusion is the lack of a real industry-standard definition of what a CM system is or does. I’ve seen one definition stated roughly as “content management describes any system that allows people to more easily change and update content, especially on their websites.” [1] Not much help, but in the absence of a clear “official” definition, many vendors appear to have adopted it as the definition by default. That is why there are hundreds of systems—ranging from Web Loggers (bloggers), to file management, to code management, to databases—that describe themselves as Content Management Systems.

Types of systems

So how do you approach your own content management evaluation? With so many systems out there, no one really has time to evaluate all possible CM offerings. To start, you can roughly categorize CM systems based on their use, then select systems to evaluate based on the type you need. The categories include:
  • Enterprise Content Management (ECM)
  • Web Content Management (WCM)
  • Digital Asset Management (DAM)
  • Learning Content Management (LCM)

There is no agreed-upon definition for ECM, although AIIM International (The Association for Information and Image Management) describes ECM as follows:

We believe that at the center of an effective business infrastructure in the digital age is the ability to capture, manage, store, preserve and deliver enterprise content to support business processes. The requisite technologies to establish this infrastructure are an extension of AIIM's core document and content technologies. These ECM technologies are key enablers of e-Business and include: Content/Document Management, Business Process Management, Enterprise Portals, Knowledge Management, Image Management, Data Warehousing, and Data Mining. [2]

The AIIM definition is obviously broad and some CM vendors have applied an ECM label to their product offerings even though they don't directly support the full range of functionality suggested by AIIM.

WCM also carries a vague definition. The rule of thumb seems to be that if a system can manage content for the web—manage can mean the simplest of access controls (such as check-in and check-out) for text, graphics, etc.— then it is a web content management system. The one common characteristic is that they are all aimed at managing HTML and other Web content. Other than that, they come in all shapes and sizes with wide ranges of functionality.

DAM grew out of document management systems and provides the functionality needed for high-end publishing and graphics-intensive publishing. A DAM system manages the BLOBs (Binary Large OBjects – graphics, animations, video, etc.) that are not text-based, including:

  • Graphics
  • Flash, audio, video, streaming media
  • Animation, large video files, high-resolution images

Unlike the other types of CM systems, DAM systems support a common range of functionality, with an emphasis on metadata and searching.

LCM systems are designed to manage learning content, including text and animations. Most systems are currently SCORM-compliant, but not all. (SCORM is a standard that emphasizes the ability to share learning models among LCM systems.) The systems may or may not include Learning Management System functionality—the functionality required to deliver the course materials to students and track their progress.

And to completely muddy the waters, there are many systems that are simply referred to as Content Management systems. Obviously, you need to select your system based on what you want it to do. If your focus is learning content, then an LCMS is a clear choice, but once you've made that choice, there is still a range of functionality to assess before you make your final decision on which LCMS is best for you.

The range of functionality

What differentiates all of the different types of systems is the functionality they offer, placing added importance on your analysis of your environment, content, and processes before you select a CM system. Once you know what type of system you need, you must match your requirements against the functionality offered by the CM systems.

Access Control

The ability to control who can create, edit, read, or manipulate content is a core functionality in all CM systems. Most offer some sort of check-in/check-out control so that only one person can edit a file at a time. This is extremely important because if two people can edit the document at the same time, it's possible for one person to overwrite the other person's changes. Also, access controls govern who is allowed to edit content. Permission can be applied to individuals, based on a system login. Some systems also allow you to assign individuals to a group, and then apply specific permissions to the group.

Document Storage

All CM systems offer some form of document storage or “repository”. The functionality of the repository can range from proprietary data formats, relational databases, object-oriented databases, to some combination. Some systems store content in files in the file system and then store information about that content—such as where the content is stored and any metadata associated with it— in a database. Storing the metadata in the database makes the content more readily searchable.

XML Support

XML support is another key differentiator among systems. As format-independant markup, XML makes it possible to author content that will published into different media. By applying different stylesheets to the same content, you can create outputs in a wide variety of formats, including HTML, PDF, paper-based formats, or formats required for handheld wireless devices.

XML support is also very important if you plan to manage content with fine granularity. The structural nature of XML makes it easy to identify individual elements of content and manipulate them, bringing them into different documents as required.

Bursting/Granularity/Element Access

Another important key difference to evaluate is the size of chunk that the system can manage. Some systems, although labeled content managers, are really document management tools, in that they can manage physical files, but not the content within the physical files.

Other systems have the ability to manage small chunks of information, to the paragraph, sentence, or even word level. The content is physically or logically broken (burst) into pieces in the database, allowing access to very small chunks of content.

For some systems, bursting rules must be set before you build the database. If you then change the bursting rules, you must rebuild the database, which can be cumbersome. Other systems allow you to change the granularity “on the fly.”


The ability to store and access metadata is paramount to an effective CM system. After all, if you can't find the information you need in your system, you'll need to re-create it, which leads to duplication and potential conflicts in the different versions. Therefore, it's important to assess how a CM system handles metadata, based on your criteria. All systems store some metadata as properties of the content element. They store basic metadata—such as “other, version, status”—as default properties. While some systems have limitations on extending the properties to store your metadata, others offer unlimited metadata. Defining your metadata requirements is critical before selecting your CM system.

Version Control

Version control is the ability to maintain multiple copies of a piece of content as it changes throughout its lifecycle. A good CM system must be able to save all of the versions as they are created and modified, as well as clearly identify which is the current version. The system should also be able to maintain relationships among versions when variations branch into multiple content streams.


The ability to search for and find content in your CM system is another key feature. The more content that you manage, the more important searching becomes. In a authoring environment that features significant reuse, authors may spend as much time searching for and reusing existing content as they do authoring original content. As you would probably expect by now, the searching capabilities of CM systems vary. Some offer the ability to search on metadata only. Others include full text search capability. Ideally, a system should offer users a combination of search methods (metadata and full-text, for example.)


Content may or may not have a “shelf life”. Some documents are obsolete in a short time, while others may potentially live on to infinity. As information becomes redundant, or is superseded by new information, the value in keeping it in the database may diminish. To keep your information database uncluttered, and to reduce the possibility of authors reusing obsolete information, it should be archived, or removed from the production database. But not all CM systems have archiving functions, so if your content does have a “shelf life”, you'll need a CM system that supports archiving.

Format conversion

CM systems may or may not include functionality to take in files in different formats and convert them to a common storage format (usually XML). Format conversion may be important to you if your authors create their materials in a common authoring package, like MS Word. When the content is checked in, the CM system converts it to the storage format before putting it in the repository. CM systems can also convert the content in the reverse direction—from the storage format to a different format.

Authoring interfaces

When selecting a CM system, it's also critical to consider the needs of the authors who will be creating the content that the system will be managing. CM systems may or may not come with their own authoring interfaces. Some CM systems require you to author your documents in an external authoring package before checking them into the system. Some provide a rudimentary built-in interface that allows you to make minor changes to content.

On the other hand, most web content management systems include HTML or forms-based authoring interfaces and focus on collaborative authoring. Forms are very useful for hiding HTML codes from casual authors or authors who don't want or need to know HTML.


This is an area where CM systems are usually weak. They rarely include sufficient publishing capability to satisfy the need of multi-format publishing. Most systems offer functionality to transform content to HTML, but none offer the full range of functions required for book/paper publishing. For complex publishing, you must supplement the CM system's built-in functionality with a publishing engine. Vendors will identify which publishing engines can interface with their CM system.


Given the wide range of functionality, it's important to determine which functions are important to you so you can assess how well the systems you are evaluating can handle them. It's also important to note that there isn't one CM system that is the best. They all have their strengths and weaknesses. That's why any selection of a CM system must begin with a complete and thorough analysis of your needs. You must be able to match up your CM needs against the functionality available in the systems on the market.


  1. NodeWorks Directory:
  2. AIIM International:

Copyright 2004, The Rockley Group, Inc.